One of L.A.'s greatest culinary legacies is the California lunchroom burger, the multi-layered composition of iceberg lettuce, pickles and slightly underripe tomatoes, neatly arranged and slicked with a sweet, thick dressing on a lightly toasted bun. The thin, slightly charred beef patty becomes basically another texture in this sandwich, more valuable for its crunch and it savoryness than for its juice. The lunchroom burger is essentially a short-form essay on crispness. When you want the mediocre version of this, you get a Big Mac. When you are seeking greatness, turn to the Apple Pan, a homey 1940s institution imitated everywhere from Duluth to Bahrain. No matter how many waiting people may be crowded in behind you, the countermen will always draw you another cup of coffee from the gas-fired urn.
If you have contemplated a meal of blowfish, your dreams were probably shaped by the popular conception of fugu, the notorious fish of death. In Japan, fugu chefs are specially certified, and expensive. Exquisitely orchestrated fugu meals often last hours. The Korean conception of blowfish, on the other hand, is as the centerpiece of a pleasant evening of alcohol and conversation, sipping black-raspberry wine around a communal tabletop caldron of brick-red broth and vegetables, slipping meaty pieces of simmered blowfish from their curious V-shaped bones. Cooked as a jiri, soupy stew, blowfish may remind you a bit of the texture of frog's legs. When you're almost finished, the waitress reappears to mix the dregs of the pot with rice, chopped vegetables and a little oil, and leaves it to fry into a crisp-bottomed porridge of joy.
Why doesn't Los Angeles have brasseries? We do, actually, except they call themselves gastropubs and serve kale salad and pan-roasted Brussels sprouts instead of giant crocks of choucroûte. Sauerkraut has never done well here in the land of Meyer lemons and year-round asparagus. But still, Comme Ça is more or less a brasserie in the classic sense, with plateaux of chilled seafood, escargots persillade and crisp sautéed skate Grenoblois, except that you can also get a nicely turned Aviation No. 1 if you want — this is where the L.A. cocktailian thing kicked off a few years ago — and the bloody-rare cheeseburger is profound. The obsessions of owner David Myers run more toward Japan than toward boeuf bourguignon these days, and the sleek, theatrically lighted dining room may be a bit less chic than it used to be, but when you're in the mood for steak frites, frisee aux lardons or an oozing, cheese-intensive onion soup, Comme Ça is where you want to be.
We may not have the Coney joints you see on every block in some Detroit neighborhoods, the number of stands you see in Chicago, nor the concentration of street vendors you see in New York, but Los Angeles really is a hot dog town. Look at the enormous lines outside Pink's, Dog Haus or the vendors who materialize outside nightclubs at 2 a.m. Or better, stop by Fab's, Joe Fabrocini and Susie Speck Mayor's fragrant museum of the hot dog arts, where you can admire not just standard dogs but Carolina-style slaw dogs, Italian dogs from northern New Jersey, rippers and cremators, Hatch chile dogs and a close facsimile of both Oki Dogs and the street cart dogs sold in New York's Central Park — made, like everything here, with the artisanal, natural-skin, small-production franks that Fab's imports from New Jersey. Do you require tater tots with your franks? Say no more.
The first Counter Intelligence column I ever wrote for The Times was of El Parian, a lunch hall just west of downtown famous for its Guadalajara-style birria: roasted kid hacked into chunks and served in a strong consommé that tasted like amplified pan drippings. When the waitress came to take your order, she didn't ask you what dish you wanted, she asked you whether you wanted a full order or just half — crunchy parts, stewy parts, tiny ribs, parts that look as if they come from a joint of beef. With a basket of freshly patted corn tortillas and a Modelo served so cold ice crystals sometimes form on the surface of the beer, primal Mexican food doesn't get any better than this.
You could have any number of tequila-powered arguments about which restaurant and which dishes best represent old-school East L.A.: the giant burritos at El Tepeyac or the bean-and-cheese at Al and Bea's; the grilled meat at La Parrilla or the tamales and carnitas at Los 5 Puntos. But for me, it always comes down to the iron-barred, split-level dining room of this East L.A. institution, where the chile verde tastes like a trip to grandmother's house, the enchiladas are first-rate and the tiny flautas, the house specialty, are tightly rolled and very crisp, buried under layers of chile sauce, thick guacamole and tart Mexican sour cream. When I am trapped in an airless restaurant that charges $150 for its tasting menu, my thoughts tend to wander toward the juicy avocado salsa that Ciro's brings out free.
The last time I visited the Nickel, musicians were playing outside on the sidewalk; all banjo, slap bass and tight bluegrass harmonies. From inside the restaurant, where I was contemplating a plate of pulled-pork hash and a mug of black coffee, it was impossible to tell whether the band was Mumford & Sons or a band that sounded like Mumford & Sons, whether they were spare-changing or filming a video, and whether they were sanctioned by the restaurant, a fragrant diner on a block still dominated by flophouses, or whether they just found it a convenient place to busk. In a neighborhood transitioning from a skid row past to a luxury loft future, Nickel Diner is an institution that respects both worlds. Proprietors Monica May and Kristen Trattner seem to know everybody on the street, from the artists to the homeless guys in rehab. The menu includes the pancakes, fried eggs and bacon without which there would be rebellion in the streets, but Nickel Diner also bakes its own bread, prepares elaborate cakes and maple-bacon doughnuts, and makes delicious fried catfish with corn cakes. The lunch crowd may come for the Lowrider Burger, but they don't seem to mind the candied pecans in the chicken salad.
In Koreatown, a novice soon learns, most decent restaurants specialize in a dish or two. You go to one place for grilled clams, another for pork belly and a third for barbecued duck. Kobawoo, a polished, destination restaurant in the inevitable mini-mall, is a great place to go for crisp seafood pancakes, game hen stuffed with ginseng and sticky rice, and pig's feet pressed into a cool, gelatinous terrine. The home-style pindaeduk, mung-bean pancakes, are a big draw — the pancakes are ethereal beneath their thin veneer of crunch, melting away almost instantly in the mouth like a sort of intriguingly flavored polenta. But Kobawoo is most famous for its version of bossam: boiled pork belly you wrap up into leaves with raw garlic, sliced chiles and a salty condiment made from tiny fermented fish. Bossam, a fabulous dish, may sound more compelling after somebody presses a glass of cold soju into your hands.
It's not quite like going to visit the mad scientist in his mountain lair, but a trip to Bulgarini, on an Altadena hill so steep that Henry Ford once used it to test the engines of his new cars, can sometimes feel pretty close. You've never been to a shop quite like Bulgarini, dominated by a massive old espresso machine and decorated with obscure homages to the AS Roma soccer team, and you've probably never tasted gelato like Bulgarini's: pistachio flavored with nuts hand-carried back from the Sicilian pistachio village Bronte; rich goat's milk gelato spiked with roasted cacao nibs; apricot sorbetto that captures the elusive, almondy essence of the fruit; or bitter, intense gelato made with salted Florentine chocolate. House policy at Bulgarini mandates a three-scoop minimum, at $2.50 per.
Cacao, it must be said, has a fairly open mind on what might go into a taco, so if you're one of those guys who feels options should be limited to carne asada, chicken and pork al pastor, the restaurant probably isn't for you. They make carnitas out of duck, for one thing, neatly splitting the difference between the classic Mexican preparation and French duck confit, and sometimes they make chicharrones out of duck cracklings just to mess with your mind. Sea urchin has found its way into the tacos, as have hibiscus flowers, huitlacoche and the occasional suckling pig. Cacao expanded a bit and finally got its beer and wine license, so you can make an evening out of it if you're so inclined. Cacao is a neighborhood restaurant in a fairly gentrified neighborhood. But if suffering good coffee, folksy music and the bourgeois presence of duck is the price one has to pay for access to Cacao's fig mole, vegetarian-friendly menu and mushroom-stuffed chiles rellenos, sometimes sacrifices have to be made.
Sapp, which features neither regional cooking nor dizzyingly late hours, may not be the sexiest restaurant in Thai Town. You will find neither wild boar nor sataw beans; cassia buds nor crispy pork. But for decades now, Sapp has been perhaps the most dependable lunchroom in Hollywood, cheery on the drizzliest day, with clove-scented roast duck noodles, great Isaan-style grilled chicken, a version of the pig's-ear-enhanced pork salad nam sod that is as sparkly in flavor as it is gray in appearance. Boat noodle soup has become almost a religion in Thai Town, with a half-dozen places claiming superior authenticity, but Sapp's version is magnificent: a musky, blood-thickened beef soup screaming with chile heat; tart lime juice in lockstep with the funkiness of the broth.
If it's 2 in the morning and you're eating noodles in North Hollywood, chances are pretty good that you have washed up at Krua Thai, where the smoothies are banging, the Barbie-box-pink yen ta fo noodles are properly stinky and the wide, slippery pad kee mao have enough of a fresh-chile sting to help you forget the earlier evening woes. Pad Thai may be a dish a lot of us got tired of when Duran Duran was still on the charts, but the ultra-spicy, tamarind-soured, fish-sauce-laced house-special version here is about as good as it gets, a powerful dish, truly exotic, sweet and squiggly and delicious, stocked with both tofu and big shrimp — the dish made vivid again after 30 years as a cliché.
If you want a pisco sour, you're in the right place: The foamy, tart, lightly bitter version of the Peruvian national cocktail flows like water. Ricardo Zarate is a chef's chef, so you will find artfully deconstructed versions of Peruvian dishes like papas a la Huancaina, which is presented as a bacon-wrapped terrine of neat potato slices lightly drizzled with the traditional sauce of cheese and amarillo chile; or the Chinese-Peruvian stir-fry lomo saltado, reinvented as a construction of sautéed tomatoes, onions and sliced filet mignon supporting a Lincoln Log superstructure of stacked French fries. Zarate's original Mo-Chica was everyone's feel-good restaurant story for a while, a popularly priced lunch counter in a community-owned market that just happened to serve the best Peruvian food in town — ceviche and tiradito with all the rustic flavor of Lima but using sushi-bar-quality fish. So as good as this sleekly modern Mo-Chica may be, and as skillfully as Zarate translates Peruvian classics into bar snacks, its success may be bittersweet.
Musso's, if you look at it a certain way, is a living museum of 1920s American cuisine: the avocado cocktails, crab Louie, jellied consommé, grilled lamb kidneys and Wednesday sauerbraten that William Faulkner and Charlie Chaplin used to enjoy, presumably after they had lubricated their insides with gin. If you grew up in Hollywood, the waiters are likely the same ones who used to bring you flannel cakes when you were a kid. Mixology has made great strides in the last 94 years, but Manny is still the guy you want making your martini. And although you can undoubtedly find more dependable steaks and chops and sautéed petrale sole in Los Angeles now, it always feels like a privilege to slide into one of the booths underneath the faded mural and contemplate your first bourbon of the evening.
L.A.'s best mole may be a subject for debate, and the conflict between regional styles will never be resolved, but there is no doubt that Rocio Camacho makes more kinds of mole than anybody else in town — not just the seven traditional moles of Oaxaca or moles from Puebla or the Distrito Federal, but versions based on almonds or hibiscus blossoms, tamarind or coffee, tequila or pistachio nuts. Get the mole sampler and spend the evening comparing her Oaxacan black mole with her mellower mole Poblano; with the spicy, smoky mancha manteles; or with her signature mole de los dioses, which has a funky, toasty hint of the corn fungus huitlacoche. Is the sauce of cactus and sunflower seeds technically a mole at all? We will leave that for the scholars to decide.
You pull up in front of Walt Disney Concert Hall, in the manner you have seen in so many car commercials. You walk into the intimate whale-ribbed dining room carved out of the Frank Gehry structure and are led to an ironed white tablecloth set with heavy silver. The thick wine list is rich in hidden treasures if you are willing to consider Corbières or Slovenian Pinot Gris instead of Napa Chardonnay. And then your first course is set down in front of you, a mosaic of a dozen or more kinds of turned seasonal vegetables, set upright in rows that may remind you of ranks of chessmen, each cooked in its own little pot before final assembly, then glazed with a reduction of the combined juices. It is a lot of work, this mosaic — you are not going to be replicating it at home. It reminds you that you are in a grand restaurant celebrating big things, that you are in an agriculturally abundant part of California and that it is possible to be festive without resorting to oversized hunks of meat. Does it matter that some of the vegetables are overcooked, that the pink sauce is without flavor and that you wish somebody had thought to add a few snips of tarragon, a scattering of Maldon salt, a touch of citrus zest — anything that might possibly transform the dish into something alive? Perhaps not. The occasion has been noted.
When friends stagger back from the San Gabriel Valley mumbling of lobster, lips numb with chile and their hearts filled with glee, they have almost certainly just come from this converted Marie Callender's, where even strong men are defeated by the parade of sautéed pea shoots with garlic, crunchy salt-and-pepper squid and then the gargantuan house-special lobster, five pounds or more, fried with heaps of chile, black pepper and chopped scallion, enough to haunt your fingernails for days. What Newport serves is Southeast Asian-inflected Cantonese food, kind of Chiu Chow but kind of not, although as far as I can tell, the Cambodian-born owners haven't quite figured it out either.
Mayura, in a strip mall a block or two north of Culver City's studio district, may be the last place in Los Angeles you would expect to find a restaurant specializing in the cooking of Kerala, a region on south India's Spice Coast. Even if you have eaten in other local southern Indian restaurants, a lot of the food may be new to you: saucer-shaped rice-flour saucers called appam; an obscurely flavored fish curry with undernotes of tamarind and garlic; the peppery, buttery cashew-rice dish ven pongal; or even avial, a Kerala-style dish of julienne vegetables sautéed with coconut, as useful as a condiment as it is satisfying as a main dish. Mayura, oddly enough, also functions as a halal Indian restaurant, with a separate kitchen dedicated to cooking meat (and no alcohol). It's not the best food in the house, but you can get the usual plates of chicken tikka and vindaloo as well as Pakistani dishes like haleem and nehari, which seems to both confuse and satisfy the Muslim and Hindu clientele.
We are all becoming comfortable with the idea of San Sebastian as one of the great food cities of the world, a smallish Spanish metropolis with a freakish concentration of Europe's best restaurants and bars that are the answer to a tapas-lover's sweatiest dream. Ración, run by Border Grill vets Loretta Peng and Teresa Montano, is no Arzak, but it is a nice place to drop in for a glass of Txakolina or Basque cider and a supper of Basque-inspired tapas: crisp, gooey chicken croquettes; lamb meatballs glazed with caramelized tomato sauce; tiny squid stuffed with duck sausage; Spanish cured meats; or pintxos of sliced tongue with pickled shallots. The food is inspired by rather than duplicative of Spanish cooking.
Beef roll? Did somebody say beef roll? Because while millenniums of gourmands may consider Shandong to be the heartland of Chinese haute cuisine, nearly everybody at 101 Noodle Express dives past the pumpkin-shrimp dumplings, the hand-torn noodles and the famous Dezhou chicken right to that brawny, steroidal composition of crisp, flaky Chinese pancakes with cilantro and sweet, house-made bean sauce rolled around fistfuls of long-braised beef. Are these Chinese burritos as unwieldy as edible softball bats? Probably. But a meal at 101 Noodle without a beef roll is as unthinkable as a visit to Lawry's without prime rib.
Southern California is home to a lot of Lebanese-Armenian restaurants, most of which serve satisfying versions of raw kibbeh, fattoush salad and other classics of the Middle Eastern table. But Mantee, which is run by Jonathan Darakjian, a chef whose family owns one of the best Armenian restaurants in Beirut, brings a different kind of edge to the cuisine, so the flaky pastry called borek oozes cheese when you prod it with a fork, prosaic baked feta is transformed into a kind of Armenian queso fundido and the namesake dish, a superheated platter of tiny beef dumplings sizzling in a bath of garlicky yogurt, is grand. The kebabs are no different from what you'll find in any other Middle Eastern restaurant, but if you're in the mood, the peppery soujak sausages will be brought to you aflame.
If you have been to a street-food competition in Los Angeles, and there have been quite a few over the last few years, you have witnessed the coronation of the Mariscos Jalisco truck, which wins these things so frequently that it should probably just accept a lifetime achievement award and hang it up. Raul Ortega and his signature tacos dorados de camaron, fried tacos with shrimp, are just too formidable. If life were just, Ortega would be a wealthy man, and you would see his face plastered on airport concessions, glossy chain restaurants and cerveza ads. So it is sometimes surprising to roll up to his battered truck, parked in the same location for more than a decade, and have him personally hand you a taco, ask if you might want to try a plate of ceviche or aguachile and gesture toward a spot on a low wall where you might sit and eat. You crunch into one, the fiery salsa runs down your chin and you are content.
Twenty-five years on, Border Grill may be less a restaurant than it is an institution, the photogenic face of 1980s Mexican cuisine sustained into another age. A lot of Mexican chefs make their own tortillas, compile encyclopedic tequila lists, serve sustainable seafood and shop at the farmers market now. The most exciting Mexican cooking here now is regional, featuring the dishes of a single town. Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, as their critics point out, are no more Mexican than Ori Menashe is Italian or Jordan Kahn is Vietnamese. But while they aren't redefining Mexican food, at least at this point, they prepare it extremely well, transforming the taco, the tostada and the homely enchilada into dishes almost unrecognizable to El Cholo partisans; the charred skirt steak and the pescado Veracruzano have crazy soul. Border Grill is the rare mainstream restaurant whose tacos don't make you yearn for a truck parked by an auto-parts junkyard somewhere in East L.A.
The first time I ate at Chichén Itzá, I booked a flight to the Yucatan almost as soon as I got home. Because if the Yucatecan cooking was this good at this restaurant stall in La Paloma, a community-run marketplace just east of USC, I could only imagine how delicious it might be in the place of its birth. The food in Mérida turned out to be great, of course. But so is Chichén Itzá, named for the vast temple complex north of Cancún, whose menu is a living, habanero-intensive thesaurus of the panuchos and codzitos, sopa de lima and papadzules, banana-leaf tamales and shark casseroles that make up one of Mexico's spiciest cuisines. From the banana leaf-roasted pork cochinito pibil to the cinnamon-scented bread pudding caballeros pobres, the cooking of Gilberto Ceteno junior and senior is as fresh as a marketplace restaurant in Mérida.
Fairfax Avenue's Little Ethiopia district has grown denser over the decades, and whether your taste runs toward the vegan, the old-school incense-scented or full-on party cuisine, it has never been easier to find a decent Ethiopian meal. But year after year, we find ourselves returning to Genet Agonafer's bistro, a softly lighted dining room whose gentle beef tibs, her crisp-skinned fried trout, her vegan stews and her minced raw beef kitfo owe much to the virtues of careful home cooking. And her dorowot, a two-day chicken stew vibrating with what must be ginger and black pepper and bishop's weed and clove, may be as rich and complex as a Oaxacan mole but cuts straight through to the Ethiopian soul.
In the rush to quantify báhn mì specialists and artisanal gastropubs, we often overlook the Japanese supermarket food court, short on amenities but frequented by customers who know how Japanese food is supposed to taste. And if you are a strict empiricist, the sauce-brushed tempura on the tendon, rice bowl with tempura, basically the only dish here, may seem to lack the crispness and the featherweight crunch that you might expect from a branch of a famous Tokyo tempura bar. But Hannosuke's aesthetic takes hold in an instant. That slightly sogged-out crunch — it's still really crunchy, expressive of the roasty, nutty flavors of the expensive sesame oil used for frying, of the subtle sweetness of prawns and Tokyo eel.
A young chef's recipe for success did not used to include opening a tequila bar in Bell, a working-class suburb famous chiefly for the corruption of some of its elected officials. It's a long haul from the Westside for a fizzy shot of Ron Bull and a plate of roasted chicken hearts with honey. But Eduardo Ruiz, who comes from the head-to-tail wonderland of Animal up on Fairfax Avenue, is made of sterner stuff. And his chefly interpretation of Mexican bar snacks — hot potato chips with battleship-gray charred scallion dip; seared slices of carnitas terrine with cubes of Coca-Cola gelee; pigskin two ways; knots of bacon and roasted jalapeños with mayonnaisey corn salad — is at the vital edge of Los Angeles cooking at the moment.
If you have ever asked an Iranian American where to have dinner out on the Westwood Tehrangeles strip, she will probably mumble the name of one kebab house or another, followed by a plea to come eat at her mother's house instead. But lunch? That's easy. The leafy patio of Attari is a bit of pre-revolutionary Tehran cafe society transplanted into a sleepy office courtyard, all Chanel handbags, exquisitely tailored clothing and rituals of decorum that rival anything out of an Ernst Lubitsch film. Attari is the house of osh, the nourishing Iranian soup that was, in the restaurant's first year, the only dish on its menu. Now everyone is here for mashed eggplant with yogurt, chopped salad and Attari's sandwiches: lengths of toasted French bread dressed with fresh tomatoes, lettuce and a smattering of spiced, super-tart Iranian pickles. Get the sandwich stuffed with kuku, a vivid-green frittata that breathes the essence of fresh spring herbs. On Fridays, abgoosht is the mandatory order, an intricate stew of lamb and grains mashed into a thick, homogeneous paste with the texture of refried beans (its expressed essence is served separately as soup).
Is there better pho? Perhaps. Pho Thanh Lich in Westminster has better noodles, and the broth at Pho Filet in South El Monte has more flavor. Are there better spring rolls? Doubtful, although the ones at Brodard in Garden Grove are pretty good. But Golden Deli has been the default Vietnamese noodle shop in the San Gabriel Valley for more than 30 years, a cramped, eternally crowded storefront whose clones now have clones, where the pho and especially the crackly fried spring rolls called cha gio have always been worth the discomfort. The prospect of Golden Deli's bun thit, noodles tossed with fish sauce, grilled pork and fresh herbs, is always a happy one.
This was a year when the ideas of craft and homespun virtue crashed over the land like a sticky wave of artisanally gathered honey, and pop heroes began to include micro-distillers and baconistas as well as actors and banjo players. Making great preserves from superb California fruit is not a new idea, but Jessica Koslow, a former world-class figure skater, is very good at it, and her tiny, East Hollywood cafe exists to reanimate the flavors she preserves: rice porridge with toasted hazelnuts and jam; rice tossed with tart sorrel pesto and preserved lemon; fried eggs with puréed tomatillos and house-fermented hot sauce; or even the astonishing "Hamembert" plate with Mangalitsa ham, oozing wedges of Camembert cheese, and an artfully charred length of baguette. Sqirl shares its minimalist premises with the championship barista of G&B Coffee, if you care to linger on one of the curbside packing crates that double as chairs with a perfectly made cappuccino.
When you are a teenager in a land without meatball subs, Little Dom's is what you think Italian restaurants are going to be like when you grow up: faded dark-wood places with slouchy booths and dim lighting and frosty highballs near to hand. Brandon Boudet, who also runs Dominick's and Tom Bergin's, is a master at taking the unloveliest aspects of Italian American food and elevating them into cuisine. Other guys may debate the authenticity of chicken parm or spaghetti and meatballs; Boudet makes good ones, not quite your grandmother's, but close enough. To the casual eye, Little Dom's may resemble a South Jersey joint, but Boudet is from New Orleans, and the place is modeled on neighborhood Creole Italian places from that city, so along with the burrata salad you get oyster po' boys, crawfish garnishing grilled fish, and fried shrimp with artichokes. There are complicated Italian American egg dishes for breakfast too.
If you're an old-school gourmand in Los Angeles, you probably have a relationship with Valentino, which was the first restaurant here to serve white truffles, balsamic vinegar or radicchio, the first to fetishize great olive oil, the first as devoted to ancient Italian vintages as the Le and La places were with Bordeaux. (I will never forget my first taste of Quintarelli Amarone here, which is as close as I had gotten to a sweet, musky taste of heaven.) Will you eat better if you are known to the house? Certainly. This is among the last of the great host-driven Italian restaurants, a place where some regulars have never seen a menu and the waiter's job is to solidify your abstract desire into fish and pasta and wine. Valentino is very expensive; the wine bar within, serving some of the same food and a crack at the spectacular wine list, is less so.
There are nearly a dozen Hunan restaurants in the greater San Gabriel Valley, and the best of them, including this one, tend to specialize in the funkier side of the cuisine: the steamed and smoked meats, the simmered organs, the fermented vegetables and the oily, fearsomely hot dishes that make Hunan a paradise of peasant cuisine. The house-smoked Hunan ham has the smoky punch of first-rate barbecue, at its best coarsely chopped and sautéed with dried long beans, a handful of garlic cloves, and the vivid red and green chopped chiles that dominate almost everything here. Is the restaurant named for the Hunan-born Chairman Mao? It is, and you should probably try its version of "Mao's braised pork," a sweet, slightly spicy clay-potful of thick-cut braised pork belly and garlic — almost unbearably rich, and soft enough to collapse at the touch of a chopstick. Or just get a steamed fish head and call it a day.
Everybody looks good at the Grill, which is as elegantly lighted as a George Hurrell print. Everybody eats well there too — the steaks are good; the martinis are perfect; the Caesar salad, the steak tartare, and the corned-beef hash are sublime. It is the Beverly Hills version of Musso & Frank, with show business moguls instead of set designers, stars instead of character actors. Are the regulars eating this delicious food or just pushing it around their plates? It's hard to say. But assuming that you are eating, you will also find this town's essential rice pudding: touched with cinnamon, drizzled with heavy cream, coaxing the nutty, rounded essence out of every grain of rice.
Los Angeles hadn't been lacking the flavors of Austria; not exactly. Austrian-born chef Wolfgang Puck always kept the odd kaiserschmarrn or bone-marrow soup on the menu at Spago, and Austrian-born winemaker Manfred Krankl, back when he was the first sommelier at Campanile, introduced the city to the strange and glorious world of Austrian wines. Even Austrian-born ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ran an Austrian-influenced restaurant in Venice for a while. But Bierbeisl, Bernhard Mairinger's emporium of schnitzel, milk-poached weisswurst and creamy goulasch is a purely Austrian restaurant of a sort we have never quite seen here, with a schnapps list and blueberry kaiserschmarrn for dessert. Sausage tasting menus with beer pairings? Be still my heart.
It is a cool night, and you have made it past the throng at the bar, and you are out on the patio at Gjelina, not far from the fire pit, contemplating the wonder of a crisp little pizza with shaved asparagus and egg. You may have worked your way through a few vegetables — there are a lot of vegetables here — roasted beets with their tops, perhaps, and there may be duck confit or a bean and barley stew yet to come. Gjelina is cheerful, boozy and known for both its extremely good-looking customers (a lot of young actors tend to show up here late) and Travis Lett's decent organic-fetish Italian food. The scene may be as crunchy as the wood-fired pizza crust, but relax: It's Abbot Kinney.
Aficionados of Mexican seafood in Los Angeles have for years been obsessed with the peregrinations of Mr. Sergio Peñuelas, the ronin chef long associated with the Mariscos Chente chain. The restaurants always had great shrimp dishes, supposedly made with seafood a member of the family brought herself from Mazatlan a couple of times a week, but Peñuelas is a master of pescado zarandeado, an elusive dish of marinated snook cooked by shaking it over charcoal until the flesh caramelizes but does not char. Pescado zarandeado is apparently a difficult art — many Sinaloan or Nayarit-style kitchens in town attempt it but few consistently do it well. All you really have to know is that Coni'Seafood, not far from the Hollywood Park racetrack, seems to be Peñuelas' permanent home and that you should probably try the fiery shrimp ceviche called aguachile as well.
Looking for the gearhead version of a modernist hamburger? Check out Ernesto Uchimura's model, layered with ketchup leather, pickle shavings, homemade American cheese scented with kombu seaweed, and a microscopically thin layer of fried cheese, tucked into a bun sprinkled with white specks that look like sesame seeds but crunch like breakfast cereal. What you taste is salt, juice and the crunchy char of well-cooked meat. The Plan Check Burger has been carefully engineered to resemble the great bar burgers of your youth, and it re-creates them in 3-D, in Imax and with stereophonic Dolby sound. The French fries are cooked in melted beef fat and gently dusted with smoked salt, and every piece of fried chicken is the crunchiest. It's all very retro-futurist, with a long list of Japanese whiskies to boot.
"I've always pushed the pastrami," the late Al Langer told me once. "And you want to know why? Because it costs me a little less than corned beef." But even after the great deli man's demise, the institution he founded continues to serve the best pastrami sandwiches in America, in a part of Los Angeles now better known for its pupusas than for its knishes. The rye bread, double-baked and served hot, has a hard, crunchy crust. The long-steamed pastrami, dense, hand-sliced and nowhere near lean, has a firm, chewy consistency, a gentle flavor of garlic and clove, and a clean edge of smokiness that can remind you of the kinship between pastrami and Texas barbecue. Norm Langer, Al's son, recommends the No. 19, with pastrami, swiss cheese and cole slaw. I like my pastrami straight.
Daniel Mattern and Roxana Jullapat, Campanile veterans who most recently were in charge of the kitchen at Ammo, operate in the tradition of Los Angeles pan-Mediterranean cooking, sometimes called urban rustic cuisine, although the occasional sharp North African edge seems all their own. Mattern's cooking incorporates not just the seasons but also the microseasons of Southern California produce — you can tell the moment green garlic gives way to sweet spring onions by the garnish on the steamed clams, and the people who come here tend to come here a lot. Cooks County is a restaurant you could visit three times a week and then come back for oxtail hash and cheese biscuits at Sunday brunch.
Kevin Bludso, as you probably know, is the muscle behind a fancy new barbecue restaurant up on North La Brea Avenue that also serves craft beers and the kind of cocktails fancied by mustachioed dandies. But you might as well tool down to Compton when the urge for barbecue strikes, because the brisket that issues from the battered steel smokers behind Bludso's original restaurant is a paradigm of meat, beef that disappears so quickly that if it weren't for the feeling of satisfying fullness you might swear that you had less eaten it than dreamed it.
Kang Ho-dong is a former wrestler turned TV personality, like a Korean Kim Kardashian in a singlet. Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong is the local branch of a restaurant chain he runs on the side, a concrete bunker of tabletop grills fitted into the Art Deco Chapman Market night life complex. The restaurant has no sign in English but is easily identified by the life-sized cardboard cutouts of Kang Ho-dong flanking the entrance. On weekends, the wait for a table is often two hours. The menu is short, basically a pamphlet listing various cuts of meat of surprisingly high quality. Unless you have a specialist's agenda, you will probably order one of the two beef set-course dinners, which include the eggs and cheese corn that cook in special wells set into the grill. The waiter will show you how to mix a soju bomb. Sobriety is not considered a virtue here.
When soft-shell crabs come into season, the Pacific langoustines are running or it is time to strap on the bibs and dive into a dozen oysters or a pile of Maryland blues, the Hungry Cat, Suzanne Goin and David Lentz's oddly shaped seafood restaurant, is probably the first place to turn. Because the first rule of the kitchen seems to be: Don't mess too much with the fish. That means the Santa Barbara sea urchin isn't a source of intriguing richness, it's a sea urchin, and the first-of-season Alaskan halibut may be served with risotto, yellowfoot mushrooms and ramps, but it still looks and tastes recognizably like a fillet from a creature pulled pretty recently from the sea. Is the $25 lobster roll exactly the same as the one you paid 12 bucks for last summer in Point Judith? It is not. But the split, crisp, rectangular object is as close as you are going to get on this coast.
Nobu Matsuhisa is one of the one or two most important chefs ever to come out of Los Angeles, not only combining izakaya cooking and Peruvian flavors into a style that inspired chefs all around the world but also redesigning the modern restaurant kitchen as a system running through sushi chefs instead of the guys at the stoves. His influence is so pervasive that we barely notice it anymore. And while the various permutations of his up-market brand Nobu may be more luxurious, Matsuhisa, the well-worn Beverly Hills restaurant that launched an empire, still has all the immediacy, even if you do end up with the same omakase menu of sashimi salad, "new-style" sashimi with garlic, uni shooters and miso-marinated cod the restaurant has been serving for half of forever. Matsuhisa is why a hot night out in Los Angeles involves sushi instead of sole meuniere.
Into the locavore thing? You might want to try the tacos with chiles torreados at this Boyle Heights taquería, which is to say ultrahot chiles grown in Armando De La Torre's backyard, sautéed until they practically melt from the heat, served in a fresh tortilla made from nixtamal ground several times a day in his brother's tortillería next door. Guisados, specializing in tacos de guisados, Mexico City-style tacos of carefully prepared stews instead of grilled meats, is a neighborhood hangout that has become the Eastside restaurant most likely to be visited by folks from west of the river, drawn by the tacos stuffed with griddled shrimp with tamarind, spicy chicken tinga, or diced pork chops in chile verde. This is one of the few taquerías in Los Angeles where you can take a vegetarian: You'll find delicious tacos of stewed calabacita; sautéed mushrooms with onion and cilantro; and sizzled panela cheese.
If you were to invent a restaurant whose specialties include a cauliflower T-bone, you probably couldn't do any better than Superba Snack Bar, an open-ended shoe box of a restaurant at the heart of Venice's new Rose Avenue restaurant row, in a neighborhood where the fixed-gear bicycles outnumber the Priuses. Jason Neroni's style is what you might call abstracted Italian, which is to say that it incorporates tastes and textures associated with Italian cooking without actually duplicating an Italian dish. That cauliflower T-bone is a formidable slab of the vegetable, flecked with char and smeared with a purée of basil, citrus and olives, a Sicilian-esque preparation that is probably as close to hedonistic as a vegan dish can get. If Superba has a specialty, it is probably pasta: handmade, slightly stiff and leaning toward excess, whole-wheat rigatoni more or less in the style of cacio e pepe, cooked extremely al dente and tossed with cheese and a punishing handful of black pepper. It doesn't quite taste like anything you'd get in Rome. It tastes like Venice Beach.
Starry Kitchen is a restaurant enriched with so many levels of meta that it can be hard to keep straight without a scorecard. It was founded as an occasional pop-up in chef Thi Tran and co-owner Nguyen Tran's North Hollywood apartment courtyard before moving to a converted fast-food place in a food court. But the restaurant seems almost settled as a semi-permanent evening pop-up in Tiara, Fred Eric's lunch restaurant in the Fashion District, so you can count on finding Sichuan wontons and double-fried chicken wings, although you should probably call a day or two in advance, especially if you want to reserve one of the few Singapore-style chili crabs served each night. The fried rice is made with slivers of roast pork belly and the dried-seafood components of XO sauce, which makes the rice expensive at $15 but also an irresistible umami bomb. Thi's pancetta-spiked take on the Vietnamese caramelized sea bass clay pot is surpassed only by the bass heads and tails, crisped on the grill, served with sweetened fish sauce for dipping.
Like Ginza Sushiko in the early 1990s or Rex among Italian restaurants a decade before that, Tsujita, a spinoff of a revered Tokyo ramen restaurant, is so far ahead of its competition that the others may as well not exist. The broth is a complex composition of chicken, fish and kurobuta pork; the diaphanous noodles — order them cooked hard — act more as texture than as substance; they add little weight to the thick, milky brew. If anything, the tsukemen, chewy noodles served plain with a dipping sauce of greatly reduced broth, are even better, the essence of wheat, pig and smoke. Even the simmered egg, its yolk a vivid, reddish-yellow custard, is superb. Tsujita's biggest flaws? Lines are long, and ramen is served only at lunch. In the evenings it becomes a noodle-free izakaya. Thankfully, there is now an all-ramen Tsujita annex with a slightly different menu — no tsukemen! — right across the street.
I am still waiting for the moment when restaurants begin to feature wood sommeliers, dudes who come around to your table and explain the provenance of that day's fruitwood or hickory. Maybe they could be identified by little hatchets hanging from their necks. And if that day ever comes, you will probably see it first at Andrew Kirschner's small-plates restaurant Tar & Roses, where almost everything passes through the big wood-burning oven and a line on the menu identifies the firewood of the day. Will it be the smoky lick of almond on the singed lettuce salad with sardines and burrata; of cherrywood on the charred baby carrots with thickened crème fraîche and chermoula; or oak on the roasted English peas? Is it even possible to tell which kind of logs are involved in your next giant pork chop with greens? Tar & Roses, which also has a terrific, mostly Italian, wine list, may also mark the first time in our nation's history when cauliflower became more delicious than prime steak.
When you finish describing your latest Koreatown finds to a Korean friend, the pubs hidden away behind unmarked apartment courts, the barbecued meat palaces and the grills specializing in exotic invertebrates, she will always come back with the dinner she ate at her mother's house last week — or, barring that, the restaurant dinner she begrudgingly admits tasted a lot like something her mother might have cooked. On such occasions, the restaurant invoked is often Soban, a modest place on the western end of Koreatown known for the quantity and quality of its banchan — you get 15 or so of the tiny vegetable dishes before your entrée — but also for its compelling eun dae gu jorim, braised cod with chile; pots of spicy braised shortribs; and especially the like ganjang gaejang, raw blue crabs marinated in an elixir of what seems to be a distillation of the animal's sweet juices. Alcohol is neither served nor tolerated, setting it apart from pretty much every other restaurant in Koreatown.
Peruvian cuisine is one of the most captivating in the world, a complex ballet between seafood from the chilly Humboldt Current and the produce of the high plains; between pre-Columbian culinary traditions, European technique and mostly Asian cooks. One can only imagine the possibilities inherent in the choice among 50 kinds of potatoes. Ricardo Zarate, a Peruvian chef who worked in sushi bars for decades before breaking out with a Peruvian lunch counter near USC, envisions Picca as an updated anticucheria, a Peruvian bar specializing in grilled beef heart, but expanding the idea to chicken wings, sea scallops, Santa Barbara spot prawns, even cherry tomatoes with burrata and black mint. Zarate's conceit here is the opposite of Nobu Matsuhisa's: Instead of inflecting Japanese small-plates cuisine with Andean flavors, he's filtering Peruvian cooking through the aesthetics of the izakaya, so that the meals you've been used to eating in L.A. Peruvian restaurants become delicate, prettily arranged plates meant to be shared.
Manhattan Beach, perhaps better known for the excellence of its beach volleyball than for that of its kitchens, has quietly become the restaurant center of the South Bay. For the first time perhaps since the 1980s heyday of St. Estephe, Westsiders are heading south just to eat. And this sprawling restaurant overseen by David LeFevre, best known for his long term at downtown's Water Grill, is perfectly emblematic of the modern L.A. restaurant: open kitchen, cured-meat plates, small plates, obscure pale ales and all. The recession may be on, and everyone is on a diet, but you'd never know it here, with people tearing into soft hunks of braised hog jowl in fish-sauce-infused caramel, barbecued lamb belly, and Brussels sprouts with hazelnuts. LeFevre can cook, and he has confidence in his palate, whether it is seasoning broccoflower with a simple squeeze of lemon and a little chile or going medieval on a plate of sword squid with lemon curd. But whom are we kidding? You're probably there for a crack at the impossibly rich bacon cheddar biscuits, and I can't say that I blame you.
The "secret" restaurant has always been an essential component of the Los Angeles dining scene, and if you ever managed to make it into the unmarked steakhouse on Fairfax Avenue, the fabulous robata hidden inside a Westside teriyaki house or the loft space housing Wolvesmouth, you know. So when you pull into the deserted parking lot behind a wine storage facility, climb onto the loading dock and walk down a dark corridor into what used to be the back room of Palate, the restaurant and wine shop that closed suddenly last year, you will understand the aesthetic of Le Comptoir, Gary Menes' permanent pop-up: a metal counter, a few stools and an array of portable cooking equipment crowded into a corner of the box-strewn chamber. And you may appreciate his cooking — simple yet evolved, based mostly on precise arrangements of up to 20 vegetables, each separately cooked, most of them plucked just hours earlier from Long Beach backyard farms, served to everyone in the restaurant at the same time. His signature dish is a perfectly fried egg with greens. There is no staff, per se, just ex-Marche cook Menes and a single assistant cooking, serving, clearing and washing up in front of you, then frying doughnuts for dessert. Take someone you really like talking to. It's going to be a long night.
It is almost startling to realize that n/naka may be the first dedicated kaiseki restaurant in Los Angeles, serving expensive, many-coursed seasonal meals, at least the first outside the Japanese expatriate community, and that the sheer level of cooking in this modest bungalow eclipses what you find in grand dining rooms whose chefs appear in national magazines. The chef is Niki Nakayama, who is as devoted to the produce from her organic garden as she is to seafood, and it is occasionally difficult to ascertain whether the most impressive bit of a dish is the chewy slab of Japanese halibut fin or the thimble-sized cucumber garnishing the fish, whose texture has been transformed into something almost luxurious through a hundred tiny slashes of her knife. Nakayama uses lots of Western touches, but there is a stillness to her cooking. It is fascinating how a course of fried pompano fillets served with sautéed peppers and chips of their deep-fried bones — you tuck them into lettuce leaves and dunk them into bowls of sweet-sour vinegared broth — can resemble the Hong Kong-style dish of flounder with crispy skeletons, recall the flavors of Sicilian seaside cooking and be eaten like Korean ssam, but still seem purely Japanese.
Food-obsessed Angelenos have watched Govind Armstrong grow up in the city's kitchens, from his beginnings as a teenage apprentice at Spago to a run with Benjamin Ford, to his own low-key dining room at Table 8. So his fresh take on African American dishes at Post & Beam is new yet utterly familiar: smoked baby backs, roast salmon, buttermilk fried chicken and greens cooked down with ham hocks with an understated chefly flair. Plus hand-stretched pizza.
There may not be a restaurant in Los Angeles that divides foodists quite like the Bazaar, a vast, crowded hotel restaurant that is the local vanguard of modernist cuisine. Some people think the restaurant represents the pinnacle of José Andrés' art, that the gifted chef is expressing something vibrant and real with his encapsulated olives, air breads and deconstructed Spanish omelets, all inspired by Andres' mentor Ferran Adria. Others may be happy to taste the delicious Catalan roast-vegetable dish escalivada and first-rate Jabugo ham but find the tricks — mozzarella balls that explode into liquid, cotton candy mojitos, Philly cheesesteaks that too closely resemble Hot Pockets — to be silly, especially when combined with the relative lack of seasonal produce. But the kitchen under chef de cuisine Joshua Whigham is admittedly first rate, able to breathe real life even into prosaic dishes like pa'amb tomaquet, the simple length of tomato-rubbed bread that appears with almost every meal in Catalonia. And the multiplicity of dining spaces, including what the Jetsons might have imagined as a dessert bar, and the ease of moving between them, may make an evening at the Bazaar an ultimate first date.
I sometimes dream of living close to Marouch, close enough anyway to drop in at noon for grilled quail and a beer and midafternoons for a Lebanese sweet and a thimble of thick Turkish coffee; close enough that I didn't feel the compulsion to buzz through the mtabal, muhammara and makanek from the mezze menu every time I stopped in so I could order the home-style Armenian daily specials instead. The second time you drop by Marouch, you may feel as if you live there. The third time, you are making plans to bring all your friends. Year after year, Serge and Sosi Brady's restaurant becomes nothing but better.
If you get six local dumpling aficionados together to talk about the San Gabriel Valley, you will get six different opinions about where to go for the best Shanghai-style soup dumplings, xiao long bao. One dude may plump for the XLB at Dean Sin World, another may prefer the sweetish Wuxi-style dumplings at Wang Xing Ji. The old-school guy always brings up Mama Lu's, and the woman who equates a thicker dumpling skin with soulfulness will mention Mei Long Village, only to be interrupted by the churl who goes for the XLB at next-door J&J instead. But the dumpling they will all compare their favorites with, and the place they sneak off to when they think nobody's looking, is Din Tai Fung, the perpetually crowded outlet of a Taipei-based chain that practically created the modern XLB cult when it opened here a decade ago. Din Tai Fung really does have good soup dumplings, tender and swollen with hot broth, zapped with fresh ginger, perfectly elastic and almost engineered — you could inspect a dozen steamersful without spotting a leak.
If you could design a perfect chef for Los Angeles, he might seem a lot like Ray Garcia, an Eastside guy who seems to spend almost as much time proselytizing for healthful eating in local schools as he does in the kitchen. At a local hog-cooking contest, he delighted the judges by serving pozole, tamales and a pig-infused version of Mexican squeeze candy. He has a forager on his staff, but his connection to the nearby Santa Monica farmers market is intimate. His menu, which includes both spinach-leaf lasagna and bacon-wrapped bacon, a salad of beets and oranges and a plate of tongue with tomatillo, manages to be satisfying to both the transgressive big-meat guys and the Gaia-conscious vegans; the carb-lovers and the gluten-free. Even in this casual hotel-lobby restaurant, Garcia cooks as if he comes from L.A.
The Sycamore Kitchen is the breakfast-lunch project of Quinn and Karen Hatfield, which is to say it is the sandwich-shop offshoot of a restaurant with a Michelin star. And it turns out that obsessive perfectionism can work pretty well in informal cafes. So a turkey sandwich becomes almost more than a turkey sandwich, with thick slices of nicely brined bird layered on dense house-made bread with thin slivers of just-ripe Camembert cheese, a few leaves of arugula and a bit of cherry mostarda. A BLT is enhanced with soft, oozing slices of braised pork belly. And if you get there before they sell out, you should also get the pastry called kouign amann, a.k.a. buttercup, whose perfect caramelization requires enough sugar and expensive salted butter to send its glycemic index screaming into the red.
The rush of feverish attention paid to Karen Hatfield's Sycamore Kitchen was surprising, in a way. Because Hatfield's, the restaurant she runs with her chef husband, Quinn Hatfield, is one of the quietest successes in Hollywood, a fancy place better known for the soup shots at its bar and for stuffing yellowtail into its croque madame than for its exquisitely seasonal vegetarian tasting menus, beef ribs two ways or its signature date-crusted lamb. Hatfield's is the grown-up version of what half of the restaurants in Silver Lake are trying to be.
There exists, in 2013, a newish school of cooking we'll call Ampersand Cuisine, which is to say a whimsical, vaguely ironic take on traditional cooking often featured at restaurants that name themselves after children's stories either real or imagined. And looked at a certain way, the Hart & the Hunter, which is indeed named after one of Aesop's fables, could be the restaurant equivalent of a drummerless band in vests, the South filtered through the not-South, especially when you are handed a plate of fried chicken skin served with a little bottle of hand-made Tabasco, a hot biscuit with a spoonful of pimento cheese or a steaming bowl of black-eyed peas. Is irony edible? Chefs Kris Tominaga and Brian Dunsmoor are betting the lemon ice-box pie will convince you that it just may be.
Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu are the barons of Bell, star chefs of Spanish-language media who map the produce of local community farms onto dishes from their native Jalisco and Michoacan. Have you ever found transcendence in a plate of chilaquiles? This is a good place to try. La Casita is especially worth visiting during Lent and in the season leading up to Christmas, when they prepare feasts of the seasons' traditional foods.
If you're a couple of Florida guys and you have a successful meat restaurant, what you're looking for is probably a boat. Since docks in Hollywood are hard to come by, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo apparently settled for a fish restaurant you might tie a boat up to, a place with peel-and-eat shrimp, smoked fish spread, shrimp sandwiches on white bread and even smoked steelhead eggs with dots of maple-flavored cream and shards of pumpernickel toast. The most popular dish? Definitely the fried chicken sandwich, with cole slaw and what must be the only aioli on the planet spiked with Rooster hot sauce. You could have predicted the long communal table and the Dark and Stormys, but the uni with burrata probably comes as a surprise.
Gino Angelini's mega-trattoria RivaBella may be getting most of the attention these days, and the late La Terza probably displayed his artistry to more obvious effect, but Hollywood has always loved his osteria the most of all his restaurants, a place whose comfortable versions of pan-Italian trattoria classics like saltimbocca, pollo alla diavola, Roman tripe and his grandmother's gooey green lasagna keep the loud dining room busy, and where whatever diet you happen to be on at the time will be accommodated without a fuss. Some nights, it feels as if everybody in the room knows one another, but you're in on the party too. Some people arrange their weekly schedules around Angelini's specials: kidney stew on Tuesdays; braised oxtails on Wednesdays, liver alla Veneziana on Thursdays.
Nobody has quite put a name on the new modernist school of cooking popping up at places like Noma in Copenhagen or Coi in San Francisco, a kind of cooking that incorporates intense locavorism, the techniques of so-called molecular gastronomy and a sense of culinary narrative that doesn't end when the plate is put down in front of you. But Ari Taymor's former pop-up has the improvisatory quality of those famous kitchens, and when you make it to the barely marked storefront, next door to a downtown taxi-dance parlor, you never quite know what you're going to find — seaweed-tofu beignets, perhaps, or spare arrangements of foraged greens, or scallops with nightshade berries or shriveled, butter-soaked carrots that somehow manage to taste better than meat. This is a modest but sure step toward the cuisine most often seen in restaurants with six-month waiting lists.
As pure an exponent of urban rustic cooking as there has ever been on the Westside, the wine bar Rustic Canyon more or less functioned as a restaurant arm of the Santa Monica farmers market, a restaurant where you knew that the Persian mulberries or fat Delta asparagus you'd been eying that morning would somehow make it onto your plate. Under new chef Jeremy Fox, who became nationally famous as the chef at the vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu in Napa, Rustic Canyon is still working the farm-to-table thing but has jolted the superb produce into something resembling a cuisine instead of some sugar snap peas on a plate — serving that asparagus with fried pheasant egg and ultra-dense bone-marrow gravy, pumping up a pozole with green garlic or garnishing a profoundly black gumbo with peppery nasturtium blossoms. Fox has been jumping from kitchen to kitchen lately. Let's hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Zoe Nathan makes the splendid desserts.
It is sometimes difficult to explain Sang Yoon to people from out of town, who tend to see the chef as a guy who runs a successful burger bar. "But there is bacon marmalade," you tell them, "and he won't allow ketchup. And he started the disclaimer 'Changes and modifications politely declined' thing," but they have already drifted off, and you know it is only seconds before you are asked about the next cool taco truck. But Yoon is important. The whole gastropub phenomenon stems directly from his Father's Office. And Lukshon, his pan-Asian restaurant, is perfected in a hundred little ways that escape the casual observer, including the precise acidity of the sticky Chinese pork ribs, the aromatics in the reinvented Singapore Sling and the deconstructed shrimp toast, which he turns inside out by dredging delicate cylinders of chopped rock shrimp in tiny croutons, then deep-frying them to a delicate crunch. Like Roy Choi, David Chang and Bryant Ng, he is part of a great new wave in American cooking, American-raised Asian guys classically trained in European techniques, veterans of the best American kitchens, who decided to re-project their vision of American cuisine through the lens of Asian street food.
Of the fine sushi bars in Los Angeles, Kiriko is perhaps the least forbidding, a place where you know you can get perfect shirako or sea snail in season but still treats mackerel with great respect, where you can find all the shiso pesto and sauteed monkfish liver you care to eat but still find a half-dozen species of silvery fish you've never before seen. The great specialty of the restaurant is actually cherrywood-smoked Copper River salmon with mango, a dish that certain local sushi masters would rather die than serve. (It's their loss: The dish is stunningly good.) And while great sushi is never cheap, Ken Namba's traditional yet creative sushi and sashimi surpasses most of what is sold at twice the price.
Vincenti was born from the late Mauro Vincenti's Rex, the restaurant that did more than any other to introduce Los Angeles to Italian alta cocina. Its first chef was Gino Angelini of the famous osteria. Its proprietor is Vincenti's widow; its chef, Nicola Mastronardi, is a master of the big, hardwood-burning ovens, of roast porchetta and cuttlefish salad, of the flavors of salt, clean ocean and smoke. Vincenti is the spiritual center of Italian fine dining in Los Angeles.
The walls are covered with red velvet, and the black velvet of the banquettes is punctuated with rhinestones. The chairs are overstuffed. The chandeliers are blinding. If you want to be accurate about it, Shanghai No. 1 Seafood is less a Shanghai-style restaurant than it is an actual Shanghai restaurant, one of a small upscale chain in the Chinese city, that just happens to have been plunked down in San Gabriel instead of a posh shopping center in Pudong. And the restaurant's menu, a thick, glossy document stuffed with glistening pictures of spiked sea cucumber, is the Chinese restaurant menu equivalent of a September Town & Country, except instead of estates, there are red-cooked squid and live fish and fried prawns, reproduced in excruciating detail. The cooking is not altered to suit the Western palate, and many of its most stunning effects may whiz straight over the heads of diners not actually raised in eastern China. So skip the shark-lip casserole and go straight for the crabs fried with chile and garlic; the crocks of Old Alley Pork, braised into pig candy; the smoked fish; the stone-pot fried rice; or the pan-fried pork buns called sheng jian bao. Cantonese-style dim sum, prepared by an entirely different crew, is served afternoons.
Before the downtown Arts District began to resemble an open-air crane showroom, before the influx of bars and fancy coffeehouses, Church and State was a loud artists' bistro, absinthe on tap, strings of Christmas lights hanging all year round, that happened to attract a pretty distinguished series of French-trained chefs. The kitchen is home at the moment to Tony Esnault, a Ducasse veteran who won four stars from the Los Angeles Times for his cooking at Patina, and the bistro cooking is stunning: crisp snapper filets on a meltingly soft bed of razor-thin confit bayaldi, braised pork belly with favas and polenta, and a gorgeous ballotine of rabbit shocked into life with sprigs of fresh tarragon. You can still find the tarte flambé, fried pig's ears, bouillabaisse and roasted marrowbone with radish from the regime of Walter Manzke, and the restaurant will never be without its snails in garlic butter or cheesy onion soup, but the classics are if anything even more carefully prepared. Church and State is still probably the best bistro downtown.
Celestino Drago is an old-fashioned man, devoted to his craft, devoted to the outdoors and devoted to his family, each member of which seems to be running a restaurant somewhere in Los Angeles. Three generations of Angelenos have grown up on his handmade pasta and his risottos. I have never seen him happier than when he was crouched over a long counter, dressing a flock of doves. Drago Centro, opened at the depths of the financial crisis, is among the most majestic restaurants downtown, a double-height dining room looking out onto the cityscape, a view that is about command. The cooking here, led by chef de cuisine Ian Gresik, includes both handcrafted pasta — the pappardelle with pheasant and the handmade spaghetti with Sicilian almond pesto are wonderful — and the meatier pleasures of steak, fish and duck.
Sotto is a different kind of Italian restaurant, a nominally southern Italian place dedicated to local produce and sustainable and artisanally produced meat, and a shrine to the awesome heat of its 15,000-pound oven. You can get the hot, fresh bread with headcheese or puréed lardo instead of olive oil; clams cooked with fresh shell beans and the awesomely spicy Calabrian sausage 'nduja; or a Sunday-only porchetta practically radioactive with fennel and garlic. Chefs Steve Samson and Zach Pollack may be pizzaioli in public, and the wood-oven pizza is pretty good, but they really seem to be abbatoir jocks instead. If you should happen across a special of lamb innards or one of the gigantic sweet-sour braised pork shanks, make sure to order one the second you sit down. Even the pastas tend to be southern things we haven't seen locally, like the twisted noodles called here casarecce (which means nothing more than "homemade") with a thick paste of simmered lamb thickened with egg yolk and sheep cheese.
If you are keeping score at home, you can probably divide the history of Koreatown barbecue into the era before Park's and the decade or so since Park's opened its doors. There has always been decent Korean barbecue in town, but the modernist Park's may have been the first place equally devoted to aesthetics and to food, where the fragrance of hardwood charcoal in the tabletop barbecues went into the meat and not into your hair, where patrons sprung for ultra-prime Wagyu beef and where the pork came from a special Japanese breed. The quality of the galbi, the pork belly and the spicy galbi soup is superb. Park's, distantly related to a Seoul restaurant known for its celebrity clientele, pretty much has the top end of K-Town barbecue to itself.
Guelaguetza been a part of L.A. life for so long that it is easy to forget how special it is: a serious Oaxacan restaurant serving impeccable pre-Columbian cuisine in the heart of Koreatown, a mezcal selection with distillates you rarely see this side of the border and a center of Oaxacan dance where a show comes along with dinner. Hungry for green, yellow or red mole, or chile-fried crickets? They've got those too. At Guelaguetza, you'll find tlayudas, like bean-smeared Oaxacan pizzas, the size of manhole covers; thick tortillas called memelas; and delicious, mole-drenched tamales. The black mole, based on ingredients the restaurant brings up from Oaxaca, is rich with chopped chocolate and burnt grain, toasted chile and wave upon wave of textured spice.
Suzanne Goin's wine bar has been an institution for so long that it seems almost odd to drop into its new grown-up location with its big patio, like running into a high school crush who has become a renowned oncologist. Ordering the same old bacon-wrapped dates feels a bit awkward. But then you settle in with a bowl of wood-oven clams with green garlic and a glass of Sancerre, and it seems like old times. Or Spanish fried chicken with cumin, pappardelle with nettles and asparagus, suckling pig confit with lemongrass, and then maybe a second glass, of Faugères, just because. Is it still hard to land a table? You bet.
If you want to know whether Salt's Cure is serving the lamb neck with mussels, which it should, always, you go over to its Twitter feed and click on the newest link, which takes you to its Facebook page and a picture of the current blackboard menu posted on the restaurant's wall. It is what art critics used to call low-tech futurism. And Salt's Cure is pretty low-tech, just a dining counter, a few tables and Zak Walters and Chris Phelps at the range: two guys, a bar back and an astonishing quantity of meat, charcuterie ranging from potted duck with blueberries to the intense house-cured bacon, and a menu of simple food, butchers' food, steaks, chops and braised animal parts; half chickens and the occasional fish. The most popular meal at Salt's Cure is probably the weekend brunch: smoked fish on toast, sweetly dense oatmeal pancakes and cinnamon rolls drenched in butter.
If it is 7:59 a.m. on Friday and you are an ambitious foodist in this town, you are probably at your computer, worrying whether it is set to precisely the right time. Because at 8 a.m. sharp, and not a second sooner, Trois Mec releases its tables for the week, and if you don't get through within a minute or so, you'll be sitting at the counter at an undesirable time or possibly shut out from dining at all. You don't make a dinner reservation, you buy tickets, as if you were going to see a hockey game. There is one set menu per night, although vegetarians can be accommodated. If something comes up or you don't like duck, you can give your tickets away, but you can't return them: You're stuck. There could not be a less convenient way to dine. But it may be worth the trouble to get into Trois Mec, a miniature, unmarked restaurant in a barely converted pizzeria. Ludovic Lefebvre is one of the greatest pure chefs ever to cook in Los Angeles, a protégé of Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Passard who came to California to take over the stoves at the late l'Orangerie and whose short run at Bastide showed Angelenos things they had never tasted before. He introduced the concept of the pop-up, and his 10 short runs in L.A. bakeries and diners were both oversubscribed (he famously crashed Open Table) and rapturously received. Trois Mec is the first place that has ever been his own, like a private club that happens to serve barbecued carrots with yogurt and braised lamb belly with deconstructed harissa, and a mashed potato dish he devised to exorcise the demons he experienced working in the potato-intensive kitchens of Joel Robuchon.
I don't think I'd let Red Medicine babysit my kids. If you were planning a surprise party, they'd blab to the honoree. As they have shown with their Internet vendettas toward both no-shows and my estimable colleague, the rules of restaurant decorum don't seem to bother them much. And the sound levels frequently top 90 decibels. As they say on the reality shows, they're not here to make friends. Yet of all the local chefs who aspire to the global circuit, the one where scraped meat and woodruff and a sense of culinary narrative that could be lifted from a Christopher Nolan film, Jordan Kahn is the one who gets it. And even though his detractors, and there are plenty of them, fail to see what New Nordic presentations and ingredients like buttermilk, uni and sequoia shoots have to do with the nominally Vietnamese-based cusine, Kahn keeps it weird and proud, and the results are often as delicious as they are startling.
Suzanne Tracht is one of the most versatile chefs in Los Angeles, adept at both the urban rustic style of cooking that is still packing them in at places like Bestia and Rustic Canyon, and at Asian-accented new American cuisine. So it is almost odd to find her at what she is now calling a modern American chophouse, a place whose specialties include pot roast, Kansas City steaks and an iceberg wedge salad frosted with blue cheese. But she's not slumming. Jar, which looks like a set from a Doris Day movie, is as timeless as a well-fitted A-line skirt. This is to say, your grandparents would have liked it, although they may not have understood why the chicken was scented with kaffir lime leaf or why they had just been served sautéed pea tendrils instead of actual peas.
Los Angeles has not been kind to formal French restaurants, to heavy tablecloths, to kitchens that work as if Michelin stars are at stake. If you're splashing three bills on dinner here, you're probably not going for sushi. So it is almost by force of will that Josiah Citrin's Mélisse, which may well be the most formal restaurant to open in Los Angeles since the 1980s, maintains its momentum. The luxury ingredients and luxury prices seem not to dissuade diners who are happy to face down $175 asparagus dinners, showers of truffles and caviar, and even the standard $125 prix fixe, which is a bargain only by Parisian standards. Citrin's customers look like the parents of the people who go to Animal.
David Myers' cooking at Sona was ethereal — dreamy. Hinoki and the Bird, the luxe Century City restaurant he runs with chef Kuniko Yagi in a Bond-villain skyscraper basement, is more muscular, a fusion of complex, ritualized Japanese kaiseki cuisine with modern California small-plates cooking: black cod served under smoldering sheets of the Japanese cedar hinoki, roast pumpkin on toast with miso and goat cheese, plain grilled rice balls, and lobster rolls made with buns dyed black with charcoal-enriched flour. In Singapore, locals would ride a half-hour on the subway to experience a grilled skate wing like the one served here, crusted with a fragrant paste of chiles and fermented seafood. Desserts here lean toward Japanese austerity, and the odd Japanese-influenced cocktails, designed by Sam Ross, are among the best in town.
How good is Bestia? It is a restaurant that makes beef-heart tartare seem not only possible but desirable; that makes a craveable specialty of pork boiled with cabbage; that grills Mediterranean sea bass, serves it with a heap of boiled rapini and otherwise leaves it alone. A roaring wood oven is at the center of the arts district restaurant, and a big curing room is filled with charcuterie, but what Ori Menashe's cooking represents is a new, anti-California cuisine, a style of Italian food whose flavors are neither amplified nor perfected but are simply presented as themselves. You may think the chunky cavatelli pasta tossed with chopped black truffles, sausage and cheese is rather bland. I think it may be one of the most purely Italian things I have ever tasted in Los Angeles, food from a region where truffles are as common as onions. The sentiments do not necessarily contradict one another. The pastry chef here is Genevieve Gergis, Menashe's wife, and her signature dessert is an intensely chocolatey budino finished with olive oil, sea salt and caramel.
Rotgut Mekong whisky, stinky natural Gamays from the Loire, fearsome yet delicious nam prik, pounded salads from the area around Chiang Mai: Night + Market is the most unlikely of L.A.'s great Thai restaurants, a specialist in northern Thai street food in the nightclub district of the Sunset Strip, orchestrated by young chef Kris Yenbamroong. (Visiting superstar chefs often visit when they are in town.) Pig's ear has become almost a cliché everywhere in town; here you will also find fried tail, braised hock and Isaan-style grilled "toro," fatty collar, as well as practically every other part of the pig, served out in portions carefully calibrated to the consumption of Thai beer. Care for an ice cream sandwich for dessert? It will be served Thai-style: a scoop of ice cream captured inside a thick slice of charcoal-grilled bread.
Although Hunan and Shanghai and Dongbei dining rooms have been flourishing in the San Gabriel Valley recently, fueled by a rush of immigration from China's north, ambitious Hong Kong-style seafood palaces, often thought to be the pinnacle of the Chinese restaurant experience, have all but disappeared. If you're a chef good enough to manage an enormous seafood kitchen at this point, you can probably make a better living in Shenzen. But Sea Harbour, related to restaurants in Vancouver, Canada, and Hong Kong, delivers in every way a seafood house can deliver, with tanks full of spider crabs, exotic reef fish and Santa Barbara spot prawns ready to be dispatched for the table, a kitchen prepared to braise sea cucumber and sun-dried abalone to unsurpassed lusciousness and a team specializing in barbecue. The morning dim sum is the best in Southern California, a riot of color, texture and exotic tastes ordered by checking them off a paper menu. If you want to spend, you can blow thousands of dollars on conpoy and bird's nest here, washed down with vintage Bordeaux, but if you stay away from the allure of the tanks, you can get away for very little. It is the best of Hong Kong that we've got.
A few years on, I think we can finally dismiss the rumor that The Tasting Kitchen was essentially Casey Lane's performance art project, a pop-up slated to disappear after 100 or 200 or 420 days. When it opened, it seemed odd that a restaurant like that would make plain bread and butter seem like the most desirable dish in the world, refuse to serve G&Ts unless somebody remembered to make the tonic water or serve only the kinds of Italian reds that might show up on a Masters of Wine exam. Even if you'd been eating pasta your entire life, you were probably confused by the appearance of corzetti with fennel pollen or gigli with squash blossoms in the dreamlike candlelit room. The basic impression is of Italian cooking translated into an odd American dialect, in which grilled anchovies are laid so beautifully on the plate that you rather suspect there's an art director. At least they've stopped embossing the menus with a number indicating the day of service. It reminded me a bit of a convict counting his days left until parole.
A Bäco is Josef Centeno's signature creation, a kind of flatbread sandwich halfway between a Catalan coca and a taco pumped up on 'roids, slicked with a goopy, vaguely Mediterranean sauce and stuffed with things like fried veal tongue, spicy fava bean fritters, or a combination of pork belly and crunchy, porous cubes of what Centeno calls beef carnitas. On the days Centeno put his Bäcos on as a special at Opus or Lazy Ox, news flashed across social media like a comet. So the fact that Bäco Mercat has an actual menu of Bäcos should be enough. But Centeno's kitchens were where the local convergence of haute cuisine and pub food began, and his menu here reads almost like a graduate exam in culinary post-structuralism, mixing flavors and structures from Spain, France and western China; Mexico and Peru. There are craft cocktails, with a special emphasis on homemade soda pop and the 18th century cooler called the shrub.
Do you want to see excessive concentration? I mean hand-wringing, micro-focused, Kobe-on-the-bench concentration? Then you should probably get a kitchen-view seat at Ink, where Michael Voltaggio agonizes over every gram of sea-bean chimichurri on the beef tartare, every plate of potato charcoal with crème fraîche and every scoop of wood-smoke ice cream that leaves the line. Voltaggio, whose snarling passion, good looks and devotion to his chef brother have made him a hero to people who have yet to taste a single mouthful of his cooking, could probably get by as a celebrity chef, but the devotion to craft at this anti-meat-and-potatoes restaurant with black-stained walls is staggering.
The Spice Table, one hears, is slated to close sometime this year, evicted to make way for a Metro station. And although the restaurant is certain to endure in some form — Bryant Ng's highly spiced grill cooking, inspired by Singapore's satay masters, is both vital and popular — it will still be a big loss for the city. The warren of dining rooms in the old brick building, scented with turmeric and wood smoke, feel a bit like a grand steampunk machine dedicated to turning out roasted bone marrow with laksa leaf, kon loh mee noodles with barbecued pork, skewers of grilled lamb belly and crunchy fried chicken wings tinted with south Indian curry. Ng cooked at Campanile and Daniel, and was the opening chef de cuisine at Pizzeria Mozza — he knows his way around a pile of logs. And if somebody should mention grilled tripe — it often runs as a special — don't hesitate. It draws a lot of smoke and crunch from the flames.
If food writers covered chefs the way that sportswriters cover the Lakers, John Sedlar would be in the paper as often as Pau Gasol — planting a roof garden, collaborating with Baja chefs, taking a stab at Chinas Comidas, starting a tamale museum, closing one restaurant, bottling high-end tequila and diving back into Rivera, his home base, with renewed vigor. Sedlar was a prime mover behind modern Southwest cuisine, Latin fusion, the pre-Columbian revival and the ubiquity of tequila in bottle-service bars. Rivera sometimes operates with five menus at a time, each exploring a different aspect of Mexican or Spanish cuisine. You don't want to turn your back on him for too long. He treats his tortillas, with flowers pressed into them as if into a scrapbook, as seriously as he does his sweetbreads with huacatay or his snails with Jabugo ham. And past the kitchen, past the bar, past a casual-dining area where you can stop for a bite of corn flan with squash blossoms and one of Julian Cox's cocktails after a game at nearby Staples Center, lies Sedlar's inner sanctum, a hushed, intimate dining room lined with glowing tequila bottles.
Even by local standards, the home of Shunji, a Depression-era building in the shape of a chili bowl, is unusual for a sushi bar. But what is served by Shunji Nakao, one of the original Matsuhisa chefs and founder of Asanebo, is pretty unusual for a sushi bar too —perhaps a fat, sliced sea scallop in a miso emulsion; a tangle of slivered sardines with a few drops of a soy-ginger reduction; a bowl of creamy sesame tofu with a crumpled sheet of house-made yuba, tofu skin; or an arrangement of vegetables in a bit of lightly jellied dashi. Nakao's sushi is excellent, but you can get through an omakase meal of exquisitely sourced Japanese fish here without seeing sushi at all. You expect expensive wild sea bream to be treated reverently at a sushi bar. You do not expect the same care to be taken with a carrot.
Into pain? Jitlada, in a way, marks the triumph of the Los Angeles way of dining: a popular Thai restaurant frequented mostly by non-Thais who come not in spite of the difficult, insanely spicy regional dishes but because of them, endorphin bombs and all. I'm sure that the chicken satay is ordered more often than the mudfish curry, the mint leaf beef more than the beef sautéed with explosively fragrant cassia buds, but probably not by much, and you will sometimes see famous actors and musicians convening over the crunchy fried fish with homegrown turmeric, mango salad lightened with coconut water and soft-shell crab with the legendarily stinky sataw bean, which tastes like lima beans but smells like a bad day at the petting zoo. Regulars, even the vegans, know to skip past the regular menu to the typed pages at the back, which lists the southern Thai specialties of Sungkamee (call him Tui) and his sister Jazz Singsanong, including the curried acacia blossoms served over a Thai omelet.
Where would you take a Chinese billionaire just passing through town? I submit the answer is Cut. The restaurant, designed by superstar architect Richard Meier, is as precisely aligned as a linear accelerator, and the Tom Cruise-looking guy three tables over is probably Tom Cruise. Dana Farner's wine list hides some great reds from Spain and Argentina but is deep in Bordeaux and cult California Cabs, and the staff won't blink when your friend pulls out the bottle of Opus One (it is always Opus One) he picked up yesterday in the Napa Valley. You'll have Wagyu sashimi, bone marrow flan and thinly sliced veal tongue in salsa verde. Then the steak sommelier comes around to the table with the real Kyushu beef wrapped in black napkins, and while the $160 rib-eye is rich enough to satiate four people easily, he'll order one for himself (you'll settle for the 35-day-aged Nebraska beef) plus a spaniel-size truffled lobster just to taste. He will feel like the most important man in the world.
Animal roared into existence as what seemed like a practical joke: a pig-fixated restaurant on a kosher-intensive stretch of Fairfax Avenue; a center of dude-friendly, maximally caloric munchies in an area known for skate shops and comic book stores. Whatever Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo served had one ingredient too many, and that ingredient was usually bacon. If you have paid for fried pig's ear, loco moco or fried pigtails with an American Express card in the last few years, you have experienced the influence of Animal. As it turned out, Animal's spicy tendon chips and kung pao sweetbreads were what the public wanted to be eating, especially other chefs. Shook and Dotolo have a pretty good sense of what tastes good, be it melted cheese with chorizo or calves' brains with the French curry vadouvan, even if it doesn't exactly come from Escoffier. It may go without saying, but Animal is not quite the place to bring your vegan friends.
There may be more influential chefs than Suzanne Goin, but her smart, light pan-Mediterranean cooking with occasional hints of North Africa has become the lingua franca of a certain kind of California cafe, and you see copies of her book, "Sunday Suppers at Lucques," in a surprising range of homes. Her resinous herbs and precise splashes of acidity make vegetables dance and bring out the deep, fleshy resonances in braised pork cheeks and her notorious short ribs. Everybody should try to make it to one of her famous prix fixe family suppers at least once.
I don't care if you were born here: You're not an Angeleno if you haven't headed to a deserted parking lot late at night, pulled a cold drink out of a paper bag on the floor of your ride and waited for the appearance of the Kogi truck, from which you will soon purchase Korean short-rib tacos, kimchi quesadillas and other edible symbols of the city's famous inclusiveness — enormous, great-tasting plates of food drawn straight from the city's recombinant DNA. Kogi auteur Roy Choi, once top of his class at the Culinary Institute of America, is probably the only dude to win one of Food & Wine's Best New Chef awards for his cooking on a truck. Followers keep track of Kogi's whereabouts on a frequently updated Twitter feed, twitter.com/kogibbq, and the sudden materialization of hundreds of people is an impromptu nightclub, a taco-driven hookup scene with much better food.
There used to be a guest book at Pizzeria Mozza in which customers were invited to leave comments about their meals. Most of the comments, as you might expect, were pretty positive, but there were more than a few, usually written in Italian, complaining that the pizza wasn't Italian at all. The fact that it was, with Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, the best pizza in the United States, didn't seem to matter. It didn't match up with any of the pizza that the visitors knew as "authentic." And in a way, that's the magic of what some people call the Mozzaplex, the complex of three restaurants and a takeout counter overseen by Nancy Silverton with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. The cooking, whether the puffy pies at Pizzeria Mozza, the perfected northern Italian dishes at Osteria Mozza, the charcuterie and grilled meats at Chi'Spacca or the focaccia at Mozza2Go, comes from a Italy of the mind, as if the corner of Highland and Melrose were its own denominazione di origine controllata. (Full disclosure: Silverton is a family friend. Feel free to ignore any of this.)
The first responsibility of any great restaurant is to keep you in the bubble, the soft-serve cocoon of illusion where you forget the world exists for anything but your pleasure. And the newly redesigned Spago, from the moment you toss your keys to the valet to the moment you stagger back out again, gives good bubble. The thick prime rib steak sings with the flavors of blood, age and char; the tagliatelle with white truffles perfumes half the observable universe when its glass dome is whisked away. Sommeliers beam at the brilliance of your wine selection as if it weren't the sixth bottle of that Austrian Riesling they'd sold that evening. Spago, the most famous restaurant in the observable universe, might have coasted forever on its 1980s-era fame, but Wolfgang Puck and his new chef, Tetsu Yahagi, reinvented it for the second time, as a proto-modernist restaurant on the international model: sea urchin served in its shell with a bit of rice porridge and a splash of foamy yuzu kosho, sautéed black sea bass with crisply fried scales, "marrow bones" stuffed with veal tartare, and cold soba noodles with lobster. But you are still at Spago. All is right with the world.
You will pay more than a thousand dollars for dinner for two, sometimes way more if you have expensive tastes in sake, and your experience will be directed with a severity of which other sushi chefs can only dream. The sashimi is presented on a kind of carved-ice stage and glows as if it were in a Terrence Malick movie. You will eat beef and chawan mushi and other things you may not associate with sushi because this is less a sushi bar than a kind of kaiseki restaurant, exquisitely seasonal, where you will experience translucent petals of fugu, odd crabs and delicately scented Japanese leaves when they enter their short seasons. The sushi comes only at the end, in a concentrated spurt of shellfish and shiny things that leaves you gasping for breath. Dine at Urasawa, and you will know what the weather is like in Osaka. It has been years since Masa Takayama abandoned this high-toned Beverly Hills sushi bar for the high life in New York, years since his protégé Hiro Urasawa made the tiny, luxurious place his own, but you will still find no better evocation of Japan in America. There is, one senses, an enormous effort to maintain uninterrupted flow of bliss.
Why Providence? We are down with pop-ups, and with food trucks and with chefs who shock the world with their inside-out hard-boiled eggs. We like great bar snacks. We realize the difficulties inherent in operating a Los Angeles restaurant as if it were in Seoul or Wuxi, and we marvel at how persuasive the results can sometimes be. Our lives have been enhanced by chefs who go it alone. But there is also something to be said for the old-fashioned model, the great regimented kitchens that function as a single, marvelous machine; a symphony orchestra as opposed to a recital for trumpet, horn and bassoon. And while Michael Cimarusti is a supremely creative chef, his restaurant has many of the classic virtues: crisp, white tablecloths; a lovely but understated dining room; and a staff intimately acquainted with his cuisine. Cimarusti operates within the context of modernist seafood, which means his raw materials come from all over the world, but his sense of seasonality, his easy multicultural flavor palette and his unfussy use of California produce plants his cooking solidly in L.A. He is at home with modern techniques, with sous-vide, hydrocolloids and mini-smokers, but unobtrusively, unless you start to think about the wisps of smoked cherry with the eel. He doesn't make a big deal out of it, but he serves only sustainable seafood. You will never see shark or bluefin here, as much as his customers might desire them. And his cooking is frankly delicious, especially as expressed in the relaxed arc-form of a tasting menu.